For many men an unsuccessful spell as Everton manager has signalled the end of their top-class managerial career and sometimes seen a slide towards obscurity. Gordon Lee, Colin Harvey and Mike Walker all failed to maintain the managerial heights after leaving the Everton top job. Yet Billy Bingham, who failed to achieve the success demanded by the club in a three-and-a-half year term as manager in the mid-1970s, left Goodison to guide Northern Ireland to the pinnacle of the country’s football history. Previous to his managerial career, Bingham had served Everton with distinction as a player, culminating in the 1962/63 League Championship.
Born in the midst of the great depression and brought up through years of poverty and war, Bingham was raised in the shadow of Belfast’s great shipyards. A schoolboy prodigy, he was nevertheless versed in the realities of working life, working as an apprentice in one of the yard’s manufacturing shops. Aged 17 he turned professional with Glentoran and, although some deemed him too lightweight to make it, by the 1949/50 season the winger was a first-team regular and called up to represent the Irish League against the Scottish League.
Such progress drew the attention of English scouts and in October 1950 Bingham joined Sunderland for £8000. He spent seven years at Roker Park, for a period combining his shipyard apprenticeship with football for the Wearsiders and the Northern Ireland team. Sunderland in this period were perennial nearly-men and Bingham played in some thrilling teams. His time in the Northeast was to end in acrimony, however, as Sunderland were engulfed in financial scandal midway through the 1957/58 season. The club was found to have paid players more than the permitted maximum wage and the club received a hefty fine. In disarray, Sunderland were relegated and Bingham joined Luton Town.
That summer the winger was elevated to the global stage and appeared for Northern Ireland at the World Cup finals in Sweden. In qualifying for the tournament the Irish had already dismissed Italy and Portugal and in the finals they knocked out Argentina and Czechoslovakia before falling to Just Fontaine’s France.
Bingham did well at Luton, who briefly topped the First Division and made the FA Cup Final during the 1958/59 campaign. A year later, however, they were relegated and the Irishman sought a fresh start. Negotiations with Arsenal broke down, but in October 1960 Luton accepted a part-exchange deal that saw John Bramwell and Alec Ashworth move to Kenilworth Road along with £10,000 and Bingham move north to Everton.
Bingham was a classic, jinking winger, who liked inviting in opponents before cutting inside and letting fly with a shot or cross. His goal ratio was healthy and he would more than play his part in Everton’s early-1960s ascent. To facilitate his arrival, manager Johnny Carey switched Mickey Lill, Everton’s joint top scorer in the previous campaign, to the other wing. Bingham soon built up a keen understanding with the Scottish international full back Alex Parker. Horace Yates wrote in the Daily Post: ‘Everton now possess the most goalworthy pair of wingers they have had for many a year.’ Parker was equally enthusiastic about his new team-mate: ‘He’s probably the best winger I’ve played with. He can read me and I can read him and that’s why we play so well together.’
Bingham soon emerged as a favourite in an expansive, attractive team that was undermined by its inconsistency. Carey had brought in players like Alex Young and Roy Vernon but Everton lacked killer instinct. A run of nine league defeats in 12 games in early 1961 killed off Everton’s title hopes and Carey’s chances of holding on to his job. Everton finished 1960/61 fifth, their best league placing since the war, but Carey was replaced by Harry Catterick. ‘In army terms,’ Bingham would recall, ‘Harry was sergeant major and Johnny an officer.’
Catterick would bring discipline to the Everton team. The club finished one better in 1961/62, with Bingham appearing in all but five of Everton’s league outings. But the new manager was also ruthless and always seeking to improve his starting XI. Midway through the 1962/63 season, as football ground to a halt under the conditions of the most bitter winter in a generation, Catterick signed Scottish winger Alex Scott from Glasgow Rangers.
Bingham was bullish about the signing, saying: ‘I am looking at [Scott’s signing] merely as a challenge and I am prepared to battle for my place.’ The reality was that in an era without substitutions it was a losing battle he faced. He played just twice more for Everton, but had made enough appearances to merit a League Championship winner’s medal at the season’s end. ‘There was a nice mixture of the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English,’ he later remembered. ‘It was a great team to play in and I really enjoyed my playing days at Everton.’
Bingham joined Port Vale several months after Everton’s title win, playing for two further years before a broken leg ended his career. From the Potteries, Bingham returned to Merseyside, where he enjoyed a three-year tenure as manager of Southport, which ended with a move to Plymouth Argyle, a role he combined with taking charge of Northern Ireland. But his record in Devon was mixed: relegated from the Second Division, fifth in the Third Division, then sacked for breach of contract after travelling to Wrexham for a training session with the Northern Ireland Under-23 team.
A brief spell as boss of Linfield followed but this ended (after they’d been crowned Northern Irish champions) when the Greek FA made him an offer to become manager of their national team. Following his failure to take Greece to the 1974 World Cup Finals in West Germany his contract was not renewed.
Somehow this mixed CV led Bingham back to Merseyside in May 1973. Harry Catterick had been shifted to an undefined executive role following a period of ill health and a decline in Everton’s fortunes, and the chairman, John Moores, was frustrated in his attempts to hire names such as Don Revie and Brian Clough in his place. Instead he appointed Bingham, who – given his eclectic CV – possessed a reputation as a coach of progressive methods and discipline. A wave of optimism spread through the club. Moores described the new manager as a ‘true Evertonian’ and Bingham said he was ‘dying to have a go at the job’.
Everton still ranked among English football’s big spenders in this era and Bingham was given a hefty £300,000 transfer budget for the purchase of new players. However, he started the 1973/74 season without having made any major forays into the transfer market. He also brought his disciplinarian creed into the dressing room. Players were fined for breaking curfews and new scientific training methods, which combined running and gym-based routines even on match days, were introduced. Bingham was also quick to change the coaching staff, replacing Tommy Eggleston with Ray Henderson and using Catterick in a scouting role. His methods were not universally liked and would eventually bring him into conflict with his squad.
Despite a slow start to the season, he started to gel his desired side together, picking up the October Manager of the Month award after a 100 per cent record. In February 1974, Bingham made his first major transfer deal, acquiring Bob Latchford from Birmingham City in a British record deal. The move, however, wasn’t without controversy and it sent Howard Kendall – Everton’s best player – and Archie Styles in the opposite direction. With Joe Royle’s powers declining, however, Everton needed goals. Latchford’s contribution was virtually immediate and he scored seven times in the remaining 13 games of the season as Everton finished Bingham’s first season seventh.
Over the summer and first months of the 1974/75 season, Bingham continued to make his impression. He sold Royle and Colin Harvey, the last stalwarts of the League Championship winning season, and brought in Jim Pearson, Dave Clements and Martin Dobson. At Anfield an epoch had ended with Bill Shankly’s retirement and many felt dominance shifting back to the blue half of Merseyside. Catterick tipped Everton to win the League and FA Cup double. Of Bingham’s new team, he added: ‘He’s also winning games attractively.’ Not everybody agreed with the former manager’s view. The Derby County assistant manager, Des Anderson, branded Bingham’s side ‘robots’ and the London press nicknamed Everton (with reference to their orange away strip) the ‘Clockwork Orange’.
Bingham had certainly made Everton difficult to beat. Fifteen games into the 1974/75 season they had lost just once in the league. Yet they also won just four matches and this inordinate number of stalemates would cost them dearly at the season’s end. Still, in a tightly matched division, it stood them in good stead: after beating Derby County shortly before Christmas they went top for the first time in 26 months.
Everton would spend most of the first three months of 1975 at the top of the First Division. Bingham’s team were effective, but lacked a certain ruthlessness. They were beaten 3-2 at home by Carlisle United, despite leading 2-0 at half-time, and knocked out of the FA Cup fifth round at home to Second Division Fulham. Yet seven games from the end of the season Everton remained top and Bingham promised: ‘The chase is almost over and the prize is almost won. We are not cracking at the crunch.’
These words would soon come back to haunt him. On 29 March Everton travelled to Carlisle, who would end their only top-flight season bottom. The league leaders were turned over 3-0. A win at Coventry restored Everton to the top, but then they travelled to Luton, who would also be relegated. Everton took the lead through a first-half Latchford goal, could not add to it, and Luton secured an improbable win after scoring twice in four second-half minutes. Everton dropped to fourth. Three points from their remaining three games were not enough to improve this position and Derby County took the title. In essence, it would have been Everton’s had they managed to beat Carlisle or to win more than two of their final ten matches. Everton, reported the Observer, ‘had made an unscheduled stop at the top on the way to becoming a good team’. It was probably a fair assessment.
Everton started the 1975/76 season with no major additions to their squad. The bad form of the latter stages of the previous campaign carried on. A 4-1 opening day home defeat to Coventry City set the tone. Everton fell at the first stage of the FA Cup and UEFA Cups and finished eleventh. The club’s average attendance dropped by 13,000 and Bingham’s disciplinary style brought him into conflict with his players. Gary Jones and Mick Buckley were sold after a half-time dressing-room row during a defeat at Manchester City in February.
Fresh hope greeted the start of the 1975/76 season. Everton beat the previous season’s runners-up Queens Park Rangers 4-0 on the opening day and rose to second by October. Andy King, a bargain buy from Luton Town at the end of the previous season, looked an inspired acquisition. Although Everton reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, the team lacked consistency in the league and supporters’ patience with the dour football was wearing thin. In a final attempt to turn the situation around Bingham signed Scottish international midfielder Bruce Rioch and Duncan McKenzie, a showman forward. League results did not improve and after a poor Christmas he was sacked. ‘I’ve had pressures from every quarter and I have tried to do the job as well as I could,’ he reflected. ‘Some people may debate whether that was the right way, but it was the best I could do.’
Bingham returned to Greece, where he spent a short spell later that year managing PAOK Salonika. In March 1978 he returned to English club management with Mansfield Town, but his record was poor and he left in July 1979 after falling out with his chairman. Six months later he again took over as manager of the Northern Ireland national team. He held this job for 14 years and his managerial career is defined by this reign. During that time he took the team to the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, beating the host nation along the way, and to qualification for the 1986 tournament in Mexico. In 1990 Bingham was awarded the MBE for his services to football.
As a player, Bingham’s unstinting contribution to Everton’s renaissance under Johnny Carey and Harry Catterick will never be forgotten, nor the important part he played in Everton’s 1963 League Championship win. As a manager, despite bringing stars such as Bob Latchford, Martin Dobson and Duncan McKenzie to Goodison, there remain some regrets that his team of ‘robots’ could not bring the title back to Goodison and transform the era of the clockwork orange into one tinged with more golden memories.
P W L D F A PTS Position FA Cup League Cup Europe
1973/74 42 16 12 14 50 48 44 7th 4th R 3rd R
1974/75 42 16 18 8 56 42 50 4th 5th R 2nd R
1975/76 42 15 12 15 60 66 42 12th 3rd R 4th R. UEFA Cup R1
1976/77* 42 14 14 14 62 64 42 9th Semi Runners-up
*Bingham sacked 8 January 1977 with Everton in 13th place, in the fourth round of the FA Cup and in the League Cup semi-final